Runnin’ Utes turn their hopes and attention elsewhere after Pac-12 tourney exit

Utah’s 72-58 loss to Colorado in the Pac-12 quarterfinals effectively ended the team’s dream of an NCAA Tournament bid. Now focus turns to the NIT.

(John Locher | AP) Colorado guard J'Vonne Hadley (1) shoots over Utah center Branden Carlson (35) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinal round of the Pac-12 tournament Thursday, March 14, 2024, in Las Vegas.

Branden Carlson wrapped his left elbow in a brace and played through the pain.

“I just didn’t want to end this journey with any regrets,” the Runnin’ Utes senior told reporters in Las Vegas. “So I knew I had to go out and give it a try. And obviously it’s not completely healthy and it had its moments where it wasn’t feeling so great.”

Everything was feeling worse, no doubt, in the wake of Utah’s 72-58 loss to Colorado in the Pac-12 quarterfinals Thursday night.

As the Buffaloes pulled away in the second half behind the the play of KJ Simpson (18 points) and Eddie Lampkin (17 points), the Utes (19-14) saw their slim NCAA Tournament hopes erased.

“It just sucks, we work hard,” said Carlson, who had 13 points in the loss. “You want to make the NCAA Tournament. And at this point you know you’re not going to make it. It just sucks.”

“I would say the same thing,” echoed senior guard Gabe Madsen. “It’s been a roller coaster every year. And for it to end like that, it doesn’t feel great.”

The Utes, however, sound like they’d prefer to stay on the ride at least a little while longer.

Asked if they would be interested in a National Invitation Tournament bid, Madsen, Carlson and head coach Craig Smith each said yes.

“Of course,” Madsen said about the possibility of continuing the season somehow. “This team has been through so much, and for it to just be done would suck. But, yeah, I just really love this team. As many times as you can play basketball, I feel that’s a good thing.”

Smith said he did not discuss the NIT with his team after Thursday’s defeat.

“I didn’t bring up being able to play more basketball. So to hear these guys say that without us even — we’ve never talked about it,” Smith said. “These guys love to play, they love to compete. … And, so, so happy to hear that, quite frankly.”

Smith said he felt “strongly” that Utah would get an opportunity to play in the NIT.

“And so then it’s a little bit of everything. You want to have everybody on board, but we have a lot of guys that love to play and compete. So just hearing that from these two guys, it’s a huge thing right there,” he said. “And I feel like this group will rally around itself and find a way to come out and put our best foot forward with the next challenge at hand.”